Remodel or Rebuild?
At what point does it make financial sense to rebuild, as opposed to remodel?
I think we answered this question wrong, and are now stuck with a house that will never be what we want it to be, no matter how much we fix it up.
We started with a 1970′s split-level on a narrow, sloping lot. Ugly. But terrific views: because we’re on a hill overlooking another (unbuildable) hill, we see no neighbors, and very likely never will. We bought this house 12 years ago because we fell in love with the lot and could afford the ridiculously low $105,000 price. The neighborhood is not the best, however (the poorer neighbor of an extremely wealthy college town 4 minutes away, where we work), and the zoning is transitional — a red flag of uncertainty about the future. The house itself was tacky, old, outdated, and oriented in a way that blocked some of the nicest views.
In 2002 we started to plan to tear down and rebuild. Because of the difficult lot and some special needs, we found we needed an architect. We’d been looking at thousands of houseplans, none worked. However, after spending $10,000 in architect’s fees, and countless hours working on this, we realized that the house plan we got was just too big: I think edging towards 3,000 feet including garage, with a cost estimate of $450,000. Yikes.
We looked at our situation again. Did we want to stay in this neighborhood? None of our friends lived there. We decided we should try to sell the house, and either rebuild or buy something in one of the neighborhoods where we actually wanted to live. We scrapped the house plans and decided to do only necessary cosmetic remodeling.
Here’s what happened. We couldn’t find any house we liked in the areas where we wanted to live for less than $550,000. Even then, the houses were always missing that lovely view and nature we had at our own house — or were way out in nowhere. Land was simply not available.
Meanwhile, as part of our renovation on our old house, we were replacing a back porch with an addition — probably a mistake, but at the time we were still living there, and had been living in unacceptable conditions for way, way too long. We could be living there for years more and had family pressures.
As the renovation progressed, our house began to become liveable, even pleasant. Now we couldn’t leave it! We love the land, the closeness to town, and would have to make big sacrifices, pay lots more money, in order to move somewhere else.
But in deciding to stay, we realized we had now cut off the previous option of tearing down and rebuilding. With the addition and changes we’d already done, we’d take a huge financial loss by tearing the house down — never mind the environmental waste.
So, this is where we ended up: we’ve replaced the siding, the heating system, completely redone the kitchen, moved and redone one of the bathrooms, changed the trim, changed all the windows (!), changed most of the doors, added on an entrance, refinished the hardwood floors, retiled the roof. Total cost: around $140,000.
I feel like our house is the tin man from the Wizard of Oz — we’ve gradually replaced every single part of it, bit by bit.
It’s so obvious what we should have done, had we known we would end up here: tear down and rebuild. Keep looking through published houseplans for however long it took until we found one that was reasonable. Hire an architect only to make sure it could be adapted to our lot and for accessibility.
Our house now is orders of magnitude nicer. But it will never have a second story, bigger bedrooms, an attached garage, etc. In short, it will never be the house we would have designed ourselves. And for only 100,000-150,000 more, we could have had that house. That would have been a stretch, but within reason.